Vladimir Putin has now launched an all-out invasion on Ukraine from air, ground and sea, but even before that, astute politician that he is, he has achieved many of his objectives by systematically mounting the level of threat without actually pounding Ukraine with his deadly missiles as he is doing now. He has been playing the game craftily and entirely on his own terms.
True, he has brought back NATO from near irrelevance to new life, but only to make it, along with the USA, look increasingly like paper tigers with no better weapons than a set of ineffective sanctions to fight the powerful Russian army, of which 1.9 lakh well-equipped soldiers were stationed on the borders of Ukraine since long in Crimea and Belarus.
In a chilling resemblance to the way he had recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia in 2008 five days prior to the military assault there, he has preceded the Ukraine invasion by recognising two breakaway enclaves ~ Donetsk and Luhansk ~ in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine as independent republics, and then ordering the deployment of Russian troops there. These enclaves populated by ethnic Russians are where the last eight years of fighting between separatists and Ukrainian troops has already exacted a toll of 14,000 lives.
Being a student of history, Putin is following tried and tested scripts of history. Sudetenland was a border area of Czechoslovakia containing majority ethnic German population as well as all of Czechoslovakia’s defensive positions. In September 1938, Hitler annexed it. The Western powers, Britain, France, and Italy, readily acquiesced to this annexation in the Munich Pact in exchange for a pledge of peace in Europe from Hitler, and abandoned Czechoslovakia to its fate.
Treating them with utter contempt, six months later Hitler dismantled the state of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France merely responded by guaranteeing the integrity and sovereignty of Poland, another country Hitler was eying to annex, on the pretext of saving ethnic Germans living in Poland from persecution and accusing it of planning to encircle and dismember Germany in alliance with the Western powers. Sounds familiar?
Six month later, he would invade Poland triggering the Second World War, but the allies were unprepared to wage an all-out war with Germany’s Wehrmacht, and would wait till long after Poland had been partitioned between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Hitler then calculated, and it turned out to be true, that Europe’s powers wouldn’t intervene in time to his invasion of Poland ~ a state he regarded as a superficial creation of the Allies.
Though the present conflagration is unlikely to snowball into another lager war involving nuclear-armed adversaries on both sides, both Putin’s rhetoric and the West’s responses are bearing uncanny resemblance to the past. Putin alleges genocide of ethnic Russians in Donbas, and wants to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine which he refuses to recognise as a “country” and firmly believes, as he asserted in his speech justifying the invasion, that Ukraine is “an inalienable part of our history, culture and spiritual space” for historical reasons. This entitles him to claim and seize it, just as China claims Taiwan.
Putin’s claim in fact extends to all the “historic Russian lands” extending to Odessa on the Black Sea coast, the logic on which he had annexed Crimea in 2014. And just like Hitler, from his past experiences, Putin also guessed, correctly as it is turning out, that except some rhetoric being described as “performative affection for Ukraine”, and some symbolic sanctions on ruling elites including himself, and a few economic sanctions for which he seems to have prepared well, the USA and NATO can do nothing much to deter him in his game plan for Ukraine and that they will never commit troops to fight for Ukraine.
So, Ukraine has been left to its fate, and it is unlikely to be long before it capitulates before the mighty Russian juggernaut. Once again Putin has demonstrated indubitably that Russia is far from a declining power. He has weathered the sanctions imposed in 2014 after his annexation of Crimea, and has now built a fortress economy, boosted Russia’s forex reserves to a whopping $630 billion and reduced the share of dollars in them. He has decoupled Russian firms and the economy from overwhelming dependence on foreign capital and developed sufficient technological capacity to wreak havoc in any country through remarkable cyber capabilities.
Russia today is far stronger economically and militarily than most Europeans think. These have certainly given it more power to withstand Western sanctions, and their effects would be further offset by Russia’s increasingly closer ties with China. He has successfully silenced all opposition at home using ruthless repression without risking popular resentment that he cannot control ~ even against the present invasion.
Unlike the limited offensive he had mounted in 2014 for Crimea and establish the separatist territories in Donbas, this time he has launched the attack with overwhelming force. The West’s first tranche of sanctions of freezing the assets of Russian banks and cutting off western financing to them was too feeble, and even the German disapproval for the undersea pipeline of Nord Stream-2, designed for doubling the transport of Russian gas to Germany which would give significant geopolitical leverage to Russia proved inadequate as a deterrent.
Putin is deftly playing a game he has learnt so well in Syria. When Russia joined the civil war in Syria in 2015, the USA and European powers predicted that Syria would be a “quagmire” for Russia, its Vietnam or another Afghanistan. Instead, Russia changed the course of war in Syria, gave a lease of life to President Bashar al-Assad and then extracted the maximum diplomatic leverage out of the conflict, gaining significant regional clout from Israel to Libya. This time also, a British Minister has predicted that Ukraine “would be a quagmire” for Russia, and the cost of any invasion would be crippling for both for Russian economy and military, as instead of a swift victory, the Ukrainian resistance would be a protracted one and continue to bleed Russia for years. This is unlikely to happen.
Russian forces are already reported to be closing in on Kyiv. Ukrainian defence, despite years of funding and arming by the West, is no match for the vastly superior Russian war machine with its overwhelming airpower, lethal missiles and well-equipped forces. Russia can immobilise Ukraine’s critical infrastructure of power and connectivity by using cyber warfare in which it has developed a devastating capability.
Its modernised Black Sea Fleet has platforms for launching precision-guided long-range cruise missiles which can strike any part of Ukraine and it is already raining missiles on cities and towns all over. Russian military has mounted amphibious assaults from the narrow isthmus separating Crimea from Ukraine across the Sea of Azov to seize Odessa, Ukraine’s most important port, and then to join the Russian forces already garrisoned in Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova.
Heavy shelling by Russia has been reported on Odessa in the west and the port city of Mariupol in the east, which is only 10 kms south of the separatist-held Donetsk Oblast (administrative region). Capturing it would enable the Russian troops to link Russian-controlled Crimea over land to the separatist enclaves and secure complete control over the Azov Sea. Ukraine is getting encircled from three sides, Sea of Azov in the south, Donbas in the east and Belarus, Russia’s trusted ally, in the north. But though a Russian victory is certain, it is certainly not going to be easy in the face of stiff resistance put up by the Ukrainians who, abandoned by the west, are fighting their lone battle that is reported to be exacting heavy casualties on both sides.
Once in control of Kyiv, Putin can quickly install a pro-Russian puppet government, gaining absolute control over Ukraine’s mineral resources located in its eastern part and dictate its foreign policy. What is surprising is that Putin could have achieved all this simply by prolonging the crisis and orchestrating a regime change in Kyiv without actually escalating it to an invasion. He could have simply dispatched his troops to the statelets in Donbas to challenge Ukrainian sovereignty, since only a part of their territory is controlled by the separatists, the rest still being under Ukrainian control, and keep them there indefinitely till the US and Western support for Ukraine wore out. That was the least risky option. He certainly knows that despite huge power asymmetries, outcome of any war is uncertain and unpredictable, that events can beat even the most meticulous planning and no victory is permanent.
We do not know his motivations and how he has planned the end game. Possibly he looks at himself, like his friend Xi Jinping, as a great leader of a great empire and a worthy successor of emperors like Peter the Great or Stalin under whom Russia was feared and respected by the world. He won’t mind taking Europe to the precipice of a nuclear war if that is what would make the world kowtow to Russia which, as he said in his speech, “is one of the greatest nuclear powers in the world and has certain advantages in the newest weapons. Nobody should be in any doubt that any direct aggression against our country will lead to crushing and most horrible consequences for any potential aggressor.”
(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)